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Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) artwork

Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) review

"Scribblenauts Showdown is a remarkably good party game for you and friends, but single-player feels restrictive."

I never knew a gadfly could be so funny. There my friend was, sailing through the air on the back of a fine specimen of gadfly, trying to coax the most speed out of the insect he possibly could, but his efforts were all for naught. His wife was riding a gazelle, you see. It didn't matter that my friend could fly over the hazards, which included puddles and hurdles and other things you might find on a high school track. The fleet-footed critter left him coughing on dust. His noble attempts went nowhere.

Though I probably shouldn't have started this review with the story of my friend and his gadfly steed, the incident really did make an impression on me. Watching from the sidelines as it all unfolded, I laughed so hard my eyes started watering and--regrettably--I had to take a moment to compose myself before all three of us could continue playing. Scribblenauts Showdown, when it badly wants to be and you're enjoying it with friends, is exactly the sort of experience that can have that effect on a person. So yes, I do recommend it... with reservations, of course.

Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) image

Maybe you wonder how my friend came to be riding a gadfly while his wife bounded over obstacles on the back of a graceful gazelle. I can't blame you. And I'll explain the circumstances in a moment, but first it makes sense to pull back a bit and talk about the game in broader terms. You know, like I maybe should have from the start.

Scribblenauts Showdown is the latest entry in a franchise of games that asks "What if we give players the chance to produce almost any object in our game that they might like, as long as it is in the dictionary?" Over the course of several games, talented developers have answered that question with intriguing results. Maxwell, the hero of the series, summoned dark forces, rode rockets through caverns, and did all sorts of other things. There were natural limitations that remain to this day, such as a variety of objects that are different but rendered in-game as if they are essentially the same, but a great imagination is still a wonderful tool that will take players far. It's a nice change from some other fare, where about the most you have to do is point your gun in the right direction and hope you don't run out of ammo.

Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) image

This new game comes from a developer called Shiver, since the team at 5th Cell was either busy or maybe not even around anymore (its last game I know of was Scribblenauts Unmasked, which came out most of five years ago). Though it features a creative Sand Box mode I'll describe in a bit, the overall experience focuses squarely on multiplayer, which plays like a cross between Mario Party and a card game, with wordplay inserted for good measure. The mashup is not always successful, but at least it usually feels fairly fresh.

The gadfly incident played out in Showdown mode, which allows as many as four players to compete. I planned to use my Pro Controller to crush my rivals, but that device is sadly not supported at all. You're instead required to play with Joycons, which facilitate motion-based gaming. The goal is to reach the end of the board, which is one of three lengths depending on how much time you indicate you have to spare. You draw several cards as things kick off, and then another card each time you get another turn. The cards typically allow you to challenge one of your friends to an event, and whoever wins gets to reap the stated benefits (for example, he or she might advance three spaces, or steal cards from every other competitor). Some "instant" cards can also be played to produce the desired effect more immediately and predictably, but they are less common. The game ends when the first player reaches the finish position. With sufficiently spirited competition, this can take longer than advertised. Some of it is also up to luck of the draw, though not to an extent that feels cheap.

Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) image

The mini-games at the heart of the experience are reasonably good, most of them. The majority are clearly based on past successes within the medium, including one that is modeled closely after the arcade classic, Tapper. Another resembles Flappy Bird, and other diversions don't feel like they would be out of place in something like Mario Party, with a slightly different aesthetic in place. With the exception of briefer "quick" games, the options begin by first forcing players to create the word of a relevant object that will impact gameplay, usually while working around a fairly limiting restriction. For instance, both players might have to come up with a different example of a creature that starts with the letter "G" and is fast (this was the precise scenario that produced the gadfly and the gazelle). If you pick something especially adept, you gain an advantage (such as higher top speed, or better defenses from attacks), while a poor choice is a severe handicap. So it's often necessary to think outside the box, and to do so faster than your opponent.

Another game mode for multiple players is Versus, which lets someone decide how many games everyone will play. Then the events are chosen at random, from the same pool you may already recognize. Mostly, this is just a way to practice up, since the Showdown mode makes more creative use of each diversion. The game doesn't even bother to report who wins, so "Versus" is a bit of a dud.

Scribblenauts: Showdown (Switch) image

Of course, you might want to play this latest Scribblenauts game without friends who will make your side ache from laughter. That's an option, thanks to Sandbox mode. Though multiplayer is supported there too, going it alone is probably best. You can choose from one of eight environments (each unlocks in exchange for 25 points of currency you may have earned by playing with friends). Environments present you with eight objectives, which you can satisfy in a number of ways using your trustworthy ability to make objects appear out of thin air. For example, you might have to provide a shaman with a mushroom, an insect, and a precious stone so he can complete a ritual as he dances in front of a fire. You can also select active objects within the area and apply adjectives to them--or to yourself--to make things more interesting. Sometimes, that's even required. So there's some inventive design, but the freedom isn't as substantial as advertised. It often seemed to me that the solutions to a given puzzle were about all the same, simply because the setup was too specific. Also, it was too easy to eliminate most threats by applying a few of the proper adjectives to your hero character. And if you're stuck, you can spend a bit of in-game currency for clues that basically spell out the solution in such simple terms that from there it's difficult to fail.

Sandbox mode can easily be cleared completely in three or four hours, if not less. And there are only so many multiplayer diversions offered, which means Scribblenauts Showdown will likely find itself quickly relegated to those times when friends come over and you just want a quick party game option that's good for some laughs. If you can pick the game up at good price (and by now, you probably can), it's certainly worth your consideration. Otherwise, you're probably better off looking to older titles in the franchise. I think they may even have gadflies in them.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 29, 2018)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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